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The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston was the president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, 1999-2008.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA


Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 15:21-28

13th Sunday after Pentecost

August 13, 2005

Let me ask you a question: Do you think Jesus ever made a mistake? I know it seems like a strange question, kind of an odd question. And even though I can't hear your answer, I think I can guess what you would say.

"No, Jesus could not make a mistake. After all, he was the Son of God, and God just doesn't make mistakes."

Now, let me pose the question in a different way. Let me ask you, "Do you think Jesus ever changed his mind?" That may make you stop just a moment and consider, "Well, yes, that's right. In the Gospel we do hear that he changed his mind about which direction he would travel toward Jerusalem. We certainly know that he was able to change his thinking in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said to God, 'Well, then let it not be my will but your will.'"

And in this story about the Canaanite woman, we hear another tale of a moment when Jesus changed his mind. But did he make a mistake?

Consider the story carefully. Here Jesus is recorded to be confronted by a Canaanite woman who is chasing after him asking for his help. And at that moment whenever she is in the greatest need, we find the bizarre idea that Jesus does not respond out of love and compassion but responds in a very seemingly cold-hearted way. What is going on here?

First of all, we have to recognize the fact that this was not just any woman - this was a Canaanite woman. In the time of Jesus, a Canaanite would not have been considered within the circle of ancient Judaism. She would have been thought of as a person who would be suspected of worshiping false gods. That's strike one against her.

Strike two is the fact that she is a woman, simply female. For in ancient Israel as is true throughout the world today, the place of women is often not recognized as being in leadership within religious life. Women were not to speak of such things. In the time of Jesus, most particularly, women were still considered the property of their husbands or their fathers. That's strike two against her. She is a Canaanite; she is a female.

And strike three: she's pushy. When a man speaks out, that man is often considered decisive or leader-like. When a woman speaks out, she can be accused of being nagging, pushy, annoying or uppity.

So what about this uppity Canaanite woman? She continues to press Jesus so much that his very disciples say, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." Now, notice the response that our Lord gives. As I say, it seems bizarre for we think, surely, he will be compassionate to her. But Jesus acts out of his own culture. He acts in a way that would have been expected of him as a person, as a male person, of his own time.

He says to her in a very dismissive way, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she won't let it go at that; she kneels before him. "Lord, help me," she says. And then the clincher - this incredible statement from our Christ: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." He dismisses her in a way that today seems almost cruel.

Now I know we might be tempted to try and clean up this story and pretend that, in fact, the Jesus that we always want to assume was kind and compassionate and loving would never say such a thing. But I believe if we tried to do that today, we would be making a grave mistake.

We need to let the integrity of this strange, bizarre story stand on its own. We need to allow this moment to confront us, to say that Jesus, in fact, in this time that he lived as a member of his culture, was acting in a very human way of dismissing someone else- for all of the stereotypes and all of the reasons that we've just mentioned. Because she was a foreigner, because she was different, because she was female, and because she was pushy.

The echo of this story for the lives of women around the world should haunt us at this moment. How many women are there that are denied their opportunity to serve in the fullness of ministry simply by the accident of their birth and their gender? How many women are there in the world around us that because they are women of color or women from marginalized communities are driven out and kept aside and told that they have no place in the leadership of the church? And how many women are there in the world in which we live, in the church in which we live, who are dismissed for simply being strident when, in fact, they are voices for justice? Did Jesus make a mistake?

Well, it seems so, and he certainly changed his mind because when this woman would not relent and said to him, "Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table," Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith." His love in that moment for her was deepened by the fact that her love transcended all of the barriers that would have held her at bay. His disciples underestimated, Jesus underestimated, and perhaps you and I have underestimated her. For she was not just a Canaanite, and she was not only a woman trying to have her voice heard; she was something else. She was a mother. She was a mother. She was not coming to Christ asking for something for herself but for the child she loved. And that depth of love would not be denied. No! Not even by the Son of God.

There's a message, I believe, in this simple, profound, bizarre, deep story that we should reflect on today. It is a message that says women do have a place in the leadership, in the spiritual leadership of our lives, that says that women have that place no matter what culture or color or background they may come from, that says that their voices must be heard because they speak a word of convicting love so profound and so deep that it can change the mind of God.

Please join me now in your heart as we pray together.

Lord God Almighty, O Jesus our Savior, we have made mistakes and we do need to change our minds. We have made mistakes in the way that we have treated the women of your church, the women who are our sisters in the faith, the women who are unknown to us because they come from places we may never visit and never know. We need to open our hearts to the convicting word of love that so impacted you as this mother knelt before you and said, "Help me," that we too hear that voice and respond as you did by saying this faith is so great we must let it convict our lives and change our hearts. O Christ, on this day, let us hear the voice of the Canaanite woman and let our hearts be open as yours was to a truth that must never be denied. Amen.


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